A CHAT WITH THE GUY BEHIND FINAL FLESH
A few months back, we told you about Final Flesh, Vernon Chatman's project that paid a porn company to act out his bizarre script. Think fully grown man in babysuit attempts to crawl headfirst into vagina. Woman breastfeeds slab of raw meat. Woman bathes in tears of children. But a lot of it still resists fitting into easy comic topic sentences: "Man who believes himself to be dying and lies wrapped in swaddling cloth on deathbed is marauded by Skeletor-masked phantom, but is saved from certain death by having a processed sausage stuffed down his pants and nibbled on by lady."
A few days after watching it, I'm more and more convinced it could be Chatman's masterpiece. By comparison, watching Kenneth Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother the previous week now seemed like studying a rather tedious brand of paint.
Along with his longtime comedic partner John Lee, Chatman made Wonder Showzen – a whipsmart, deranged pisstake on Sesame Street that was about as good as any TV program ever made. Prior to that, he won an Emmy writing for Conan O'Brien, and scripted Snoop Dogg's MTV sketch show. He's also the voice of Towelie – South Park's marijuana-toking towel, and a writer/consultant on Stone and Parker's comedy touchstone. Yet, despite this inferno of glory, he remains almost apologetically nice.
Vice: Hello Vernon. I watched your film the other day, with a girl of my acquaintance, and I have a bone to pick with you: it's not exactly a date movie, is it?
Vernon: It's a date movie to weed out the weak.
Well, from the blurbs I'd read, I had the sense that there was nothing actually very graphic – nothing genuinely pornographic – about it. Having since seen it, I can confirm that there is definitely something a little pornographic about it.
Well, there's something pornographic about everything if you do it right.
The actors in the fourth section seem to be markedly better-looking than those in preceding sections. Did you have to pay them more?
Nah, you know the prices were pretty similar. Those were just actors from Porn Valley in California, and beauty is cheap down there.
Why did you subdivide it into four episodes?
I just think you might be able to tolerate it more like that. Part of the experiment is to see how different people approach it. And it's just interesting to me to see the different interpretative artistic voices of each group.
Which artistic voice do you think rang through most clearly?
Well, my favourite is the first one. Partly because it was the first one, and the initial shock of that situation. And partly because I think they are one of the purest vessels for my truth. They didn't give it much interpretation. They pretty much just flatly committed my words to video. They also had the least chance of any winking – they were very sincere.
There's a girl in the third one who seems to be corpsing at various points. You're not in favour of people breaking the fourth wall in that way, are you?
Well, whatever they do, they do. Because that's part of it. It's like a documentary in that way.
Did any of them go off-script? No auteur gets his vision developed perfectly – was there a bit of trouble with actors reinterpreting the material in an unwelcome kind of way?
Part of the bargain was that they had to stick exactly to the script. For everything else, I just said: "Do what you think is best." And there were, I have to say, maybe five words in the whole script that they missed. They were very faithful to it. In the last one, a woman was doing accents and really chewing up the dialogue, enjoying her moments in the sun. And I don't know if that was insanity or great acting. And I'm not sure if there's a difference anymore.
So, as a sort of civic project, you gave these people something higher to aspire to in their humdrum lives? Or at the very least, you gave them a more fun afternoon than they would otherwise have had?
Right. More fun and fewer dicks in their assholes. I actually know for a fact a lot of them went on to grad school. A lot of them got their PhDs in philosophy after this experience. Several of them started institutes of higher learning. But they never strayed too far away from their first love – many many dicks in their assholes.
Have you gone back and researched their past oeuvre now that you've developed a sort of remote-controlled relationship with them through the script?
No. I haven't looked at their work much. I don't know – they all could be dead as far as I know. On the first one, when they sent me the final part, they also sent me a tape of those same actors on a different day fucking each other. Which was jarring. Because I had just finished, and I was in the warm afterglow of my own depraved artistic triumph, then all of a sudden the thing stopped, and this new thing started up, and the same people who moments ago were spouting my pearls of glory were now drenched in pearls of glory.
Did you have to give them extra money for props? The mirrors-on-the-foreheads thing looks expensive.
They don't do an extensively worked-out budget, but I tell them here's what I'm after, here's the budget, we haggle a bit, and that's it. It was all very professional. I would recommend all those companies. Everyone did everything on time, and to budget. If you have the DVD that's in stores, there's special features on that one, and within that, there's about a 15 - 20-minute gag reel of the second group. Them throwing-up tomato sauce down their underwear, blowing lines and stuff. It's the new Cannonball Run.
How long did it take to write the script? Was it just an afternoon's work? A bit of 'Let's see if I can just rattle down as many surrealistic concepts as possible'?
Well, it took a lot of time. I had to centre myself and commune with the moon. I mean, I took a lot of the scripts directly from what the moon told me. That takes time. And it takes its toll on the body. On the human body. But, I did it over the course of a number of years. The first one was actually done in 2002, the last one was in 2009. That's as long as it took Orson Welles to make Macbeth. Already it's being compared to Orson Welles.
What has your longtime collaborator John Lee had to say about the project?
When he was done throwing up, he said he liked it.
You didn't think of including him?
Well, it's very personal. The first one I did was for a PFFR show, an art show in Manhattan at an art gallery. We did a whole bunch of projects and this was one of the ones that I did. And I think he helped out with tracking down the first company for that. But then it just became a labour of love and passion for me personally. I was going to do one in England, too, but I couldn't find an appropriate company to make it.
There's a scene in the first reel where a man attempts to return to the womb by literally trying to crawl headfirst into a lady's front-bottom. Do you think man does subconsciously yearn to return to the womb?
I think it's happening. I don't think it's hypothetical. You're thinking about it right now, aren't you?
Maybe. Do you think the actor who did that womb-crawl got a bit of a Freudian buzz out of it?
In the script he was supposed to be earnestly climb back up into the womb. And they were supposed to butter his head to help him climb up there. But then when he went to climb in there, he used his face. Which I don't think is very realistic. If you were climbing into a womb, you'd use the top of your head. Right? I question his motives on that. You'd at least go in with a foot.
For the benefit of the terminally ignorant, do you think you could summarise the plot of Final Flesh?
That's like saying can you summarise the core essence of all beingness. So yeah. Of course. Um. And I guess I just did.
That's a koan right there. Why has it had such a low-key release? Was it because of the potential quasi-legal minefield of the whole re-packaging other people's material thing?
No. It just seems appropriate to the project. It's best in a dark corner. Either by yourself or with like-minded sickos. The temperature in any theatre where it's playing rises by five degrees. So it's a good way to heat your house, or heat your theatre. But I've just got the numbers in and it's sold about 6.2 milllion copies. Triple platinum. But they don't do platinum for DVDs, y'know?
What else are you up to right now?
I'm working on a bunch of TV shows. Working on some movie projects. And working on a book. And I have an appointment with the moon later tonight.
Are you really working on a book?
Yeah, but it's top secret.
What isn't top secret?
Well, PFFR projects. I've got a show called Delocated; I don't know if it's showing in England yet. I don't know if Xavier has shown there yet. Do you guys get Adult Swim? Yeah, they're starting it out there, I think. I mean, I know Wonder Showzen showed on something in England for a bit.
I loved Wonder Showzen. At the time, I really thought it was going to catch fire – become the new South Park, the world's premier buzz alt.comedy show. But it never achieved mainstreamification. Why was that?
Well, aside from the fact that we were aggressively alienating our audience as part of the joke, we were on MTV2. And, as incompetent as the people at Comedy Central are – and I'm not saying they are, but let's face it, they are – they were still all about comedy. We, on the other hand, were on MTV2. None of our executives had ever done a scripted show before. They didn't have script programmes. We couldn't write the show in Final Draft because they couldn't open the files – it's just not the business that they're in. They're just in the business of putting two big personalities in a room and seeing how much they punch and fuck each other, then going to the bank. So it was a miracle we did it for two seasons at all.
What are you having for lunch today?
Well, you know, I think I might be having matzah ball soup. I haven't locked that in yet. But it's pencilled in.
The sort of soup Orson Welles would have.
Look, I don't want to compare myself to Orson Welles.